Football was in Walter Smith’s DNA from the early days when he was growing up in the west of Scotland in the 1950s.
Here was a man in thrall to the sport played on hundreds of grass and ash surfaces across Glasgow every day and who was keen as mustard for action wherever there was a match to be savoured and whose whole-hearted commitment and enthusiasm were evident, both on and off the pitch, from an early age.
Smith was a tough-as-teak performer at Dundee United during his 250 appearances, but somebody who recognised that he was never going to be a superstar player.
Yet he transformed himself into one of his country’s most successful-ever managers, learning his trade from Jim McLean at Tannadice, and Alex Ferguson as an assistant in the Scotland set-up, prior to becoming a legendary figure with Rangers at Ibrox in the late 1980s and 1990s.
From the outset, his attributes were obvious, both to his colleagues and rivals elsewhere.
He demanded high standards from his players, was fiercely loyal to those who bought into his ideas and tactics and, firstly with Graeme Souness, then with Archie Knox, orchestrated the nine-in-a-row Scottish championship titles which had only previously been achieved by Jock Stein’s Celtic.
There was never any question with Smith of his squad members being allowed to rest on their laurels. On the contrary, as a few fancy Dans discovered, he could turn any minor kerfuffle into a major stramash and refused to settle for second best.
He respected Stein, both as a man and a manager, and thought the world of Ferguson’s capacity to inspire Aberdeen to European glory in 1983.
The feeling was reciprocated by the Govan maestro who said about Smith: “Walter has football in his blood. What he achieved is remarkable and I have enormous respect for him.”
Former Scotland boss, Craig Brown, was close to both these stellar figures and explained how their competitive nature made them visceral forces of nature.
He said: “Walter was one of the most driven and enthusiastic people you could ever meet and that was true from the early days.
“He knew that, while he might not reach the top of the tree as a player, there was no reason why he couldn’t use his football intelligence and knowledge to make a major impression as a leader, a coach, a manager of genuine stature.
“Walter and Sir Alex might often give the impression that they are pretty gruff individuals, but the truth is they are very droll characters who can deliver a punchline perfectly when the mood takes them.
“Another factor is that both are incredibly competitive men. They hate losing, utterly detest it, and not just in the dug-out, but in games of Trivial Pursuit on the team bus!
“Whenever we were on Scotland duty together, they would start their quizzes and if Fergie was able to name every member of the cast of The Magnificent Seven, Walter would come back at him with all the actors from The Great Escape.
“They have been like that for as long I can remember: fiercely passionate people who enjoy their successes, but feel the pain of their defeats as much as any fan.”
After picking up the reins from Souness at Ibrox in 1991, a haul of 13 trophies in seven years told its own story of the powers he brought to the role.
Eventually, he moved on to Everton where he and his long-term confrere Knox attempted to transform the fortunes of the Goodison Park club. It was one of the few occasions where all his qualities yielded little reward.
He recalled: “My time in the Premiership helped me as an international manager, because it showed the necessity of stability. We had 86 transfers in three and a half years and I never had a team which I thought was truly mine.
“I have to be honest when I look back and admit that I made a number of errors, but signing the likes of David Ginola and Paul Gascoigne…that wasn’t the way I wanted it, but I was fire-fighting”.
However, Smith was always a resilient character. After a brief stint as assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, he answered his country’s call in taking on the challenge of steering Scotland out of the morass which developed during Berti Vogts’ dismal tenure.
It was a master stroke and he not only propelled his nation 70 places up the FIFA rankings, but was the catalyst for some famous victories, including winning the Kirin Cup in May 2006, as the prelude to orchestrating a magnificent success against a formidable French ensemble on an emotional day at Hampden Park.
The hosts survived a fraught opening period and gradually gained momentum with Gary Caldwell scoring the decisive goal in the 67th minute, sparking elation among the Tartan Army, who had so long been fed a diet of dross.
At the climax, the exultation on Smith’s face showed how much it mattered. He said: “It’s a tremendous result, a real pick-me-up and certainly the best I have ever had as Scotland manager. We were under huge pressure, but we got stuck in, we defended resolutely.
“The fans were magnificent as well. Days like this are a reminder of how football can bring us all together and the lads did themselves proud.”
It was a result which resonated throughout his homeland, and Smith received the accolade of Scot of the Year at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. For a while, at least, he made his compatriots feel better about themselves and more optimistic about the future.
Yet, the reality was that Rangers was his first love and when he was offered the chance to return to Ibrox in 2007, he couldn’t turn it down.
It was a different environment from the one he had left. For starters, owner Sir David Murray was no longer flinging cash around and was actively looking to sell the club when Smith returned. Money was tight – there were no splurges of the sort which led to the club paying £12m for the likes of Tore Andre Flo.
All of which made his exploits during that second spell remarkable. Rangers picked up eight trophies and went on a rich European odyssey which guided them to the Europa League final against Zenit St Petersburg in Manchester in 2008.
The contest ended in defeat, but Smith was the solid anchor as Rangers sailed through choppy financial waters and a plethora of negative headlines.
Indeed, Ferguson thought his achievements were extraordinary, given the workmanlike squad which he had inherited from Paul Le Guen.
He said: “It was amazing Walter was able to handle the burden of expectations, despite the lack of investment. I offered him a couple of players on loan and he just couldn’t afford to pay their wages.
“He has given everything to the club and deserves to go out at the top. What he has achieved in his second spell is better than the nine-in-a-row success. He has risen above everything he had to deal with and he’s a good man, who has always stuck by his principles and worked incredibly hard to live up to them.”
Smith was associated with many notable names throughout his career and thrived whether with the likes of Ferguson and Souness or lesser-known names such as Jerry Kerr at Tannadice. But there was no doubt about the values he cherished, nor the manner in which he inspired so many under him.
Former Rangers defender and England captain Terry Butcher recalled: “Walter was very knowledgeable about tactics and what makes people tick and we had some great times at Rangers between 1986 and 1990.
“My quote when he was eventually installed in the Scotland job was that he was a great manager because he liked heavy metal music and red wine – a couple of assets that any decent manager should have. But, being serious, he had a terrific manner about him, an aura which inspired confidence, and if anybody could get the best out of players, it was him.”
Smith was already a legend at Ibrox in the 1990s. His stock rose in the 2000s, especially when one considers that his retirement – when he was accorded a standing ovation after Rangers beat Dundee United in his final home match at Ibrox in May 2011 – precipitated the collapse of the club into liquidation.
But it was a measure of the man that he transcended the Old Firm tribal divisions. When Celtic stalwart Tommy Burns died of cancer at just 51 in 2008, Smith was one of the pall-bearers at the funeral and paid a warm tribute.
He said: “Tommy was one of the best people I ever had the opportunity to work with. Football aside, he was also a terrific man and the more I got to know him, the more I grew to like him.
“He was a true Celtic man; a supporter as a kid, all the way through to having a really successful career with them. For me, Tommy Burns showed everything that was good about Celtic.”
The same words could be applied to Walter Smith’s association with Rangers FC.